Photo/IllutrationBarber Toshimi Suzuki built statues of Gundam and other robots from “Mobile Suit Gundam” at his home in Oirase, Aomori Prefecture. (Yasukazu Akada)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

OIRASE, Aomori Prefecture--A barbershop here has become a pilgrimage destination for fans of the space opera anime “Mobile Suit Gundam.”

About 10 statues of “mobile suits,” or humanoid weapons, from the series that revolutionized the robot anime genre stand in its garden.

The colorfully painted, exquisitely crafted statues of characters including Gundam, Char’s Custom Zaku and Dom, loom 3 to 5 meters tall.

Barbershop owner Toshimi Suzuki, 74, used to make plaster figures as a hobby. A high school boy talked him into building Gundam statues when he was around 60 years old.

Suzuki got so into the project he even built a large hollow model of Gundam’s head, with karaoke equipment installed inside. It can serve as a boat in the event of tsunami, he said.

Fans from all over Japan, mainly men in their 40s to 50s, show up at Suzuki's garden to check out the statues.

“They bring back memories for me,” said a 46-year-old company worker who came to see the characters.

The first installment in the “Mobile Suit Gundam” franchise, helmed by chief director Yoshiyuki Tomino and produced by Nagoya Broadcasting Network Co., aired nationwide from April 1979 to January 1980.

Despite initial poor ratings, its popularity soared after the introduction of a line of plastic model kits based on its characters and releases of video compilations of the TV series.

The original series that spawned about 60 sequels and spin-offs is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

There were several reasons for its popularity. Departing from themes of poetic justice to make “Gundam” different from typical robot anime shows, its story focused on the unreasonable circumstance in which the protagonist, Amuro Ray, had no choice but to become a combatant, and the boy’s growth into a man.

Char Aznable, Amuro's handsome and nihilistic archenemy, also morphed into its secondary protagonist. Featuring sophisticated designs, Amuro and Char’s mobile suits looked believable as futuristic weapons capable of freely traveling through space.

The latest installment, “Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin--Advent of the Red Comet,” made its TV debut in April on Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK).

“It has continued to gain new fans including children of the first-generation fans, and women,” said Naohiro Ogata, an executive officer of Tokyo-based Sunrise Inc., which produces the franchise. “Its popularity is also beginning to spread outside Japan.”

The Bandai Namco Group, which also owns Sunrise, sold 78 billion yen ($721 million) worth of Gundam-related products in the business year ending in March 2019.

Under a strict interpretation of the Copyright Law, putting up unofficial anime figures in a place visible to the public falls into a legal gray zone, said Takuya Akiyama, an associate professor at Osaka University.

But Sunrise has given tacit approval to fans’ creations and this seems to have helped expand the anime's fan base.

Sunrise and other entities unveiled an 18-meter-tall Gundam statue in 2009. They are working on a project to build a moving life-size one at Yamashita Pier in Yokohama in 2020.